In the Sao Paulo suburb of Guarulhos in 2002, two women who share a love for red lipstick and little else walk briskly out of a theatre and begin to fight about Maid in Manhattan. The younger woman can barely suppress her hatred.
“I guess I’m not a fan of romance films,” she mutters.
“I love romance films,” the older one says. “Romance should only exist in film, then there would be no pain, no pain anywhere.”
The fight is about more than a chick flick. The women are mother and daughter, both writers and academics, yet they know nearly nothing about each other. The Jennifer Lopez yarn is the first film they have seen together in two decades, and it highlights the emotional gulf between them.
The daughter in this tale is celebrated Canadian poet, novelist and York University literature professor Priscila Uppal. In her first memoir, Projection, she lays bare her intense reunion with her mother, who abandoned the family when Uppal was 8, draining the bank accounts (even the kids’ piggy banks) and fleeing back to her home country of Brazil. Left with her brother to care for their quadriplegic father, Uppal somehow managed, scoring straight As in school – she writes that a child therapist praised her “excellent coping abilities.”
When Uppal stumbles across her mother’s personal webpage in 2002, complete with the news she has cancer, she flies to Brazil to fill in the missing pages in her life’s story. Uppal is brave. But if jetting to a strange country to eat, watch movies and share a hotel room with a mysterious woman who left a deep gash in her childhood sounds like a foolhardy quest at best and a doomed foray into the ninth circle of hell at worst – well, it turns out that way. (I tried yelling don’t get on the plane at my book, but it didn’t help. That never works with horror movies, either.)
Her mother, Theresa, is a smiling monster in bright orange accessories. She spouts a rehearsed monologue of praise and half-truths about herself, never asking her daughter about her life. Uppal eventually finds connection with relatives such as her grandmother and soldiers on; she says she doesn’t need her mother, but she wants to “know what makes her tick.” Masochism? Maybe. Admittedly, Uppal is made of sterner stuff than most; an inspiration to messed-up adult children everywhere.
Each chapter is devoted to a movie that has significance for their relationship. Plenty of memoirs have had inventive structures – Eat, Pray, Love had 108 short chapters, one for each bead on a Buddhist prayer necklace – but in Projection, the movie theme penetrates deeper. A local critic, Theresa watches up to eight films a day. Living in the dreams of movies is key to her numbed survival.
The conceit lets us discover well-worn classics in startling new ways. Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner turns out to be fertile ground not just for apocalyptic paranoia, but deep truths about motherhood. The movie that Uppal’s mom has seen more than 100 times in the theatre features Rachael being exposed as being an inhuman replicant specifically when shown proof that she has no mother. Uppal wonders whether having a mother is a condition of being human.
“If you don’t have a mother (or have no contact with her), what is the value of your invented memories or projections of this person over the years? Does this change how you suffer, love, hate, care, run, or dream?”
Projection reminds us that our experiences of movies – of all works of art – are always intensely personal. We never absorb powerful narratives and images in a detached aesthetic vacuum. We know them as brief, Technicolor blips spliced into our own messy reels of real-life drama. See a disturbing documentary on a good date, and its raw footage will seem tinted rose. Have a dream about Harrison Ford, and he’ll end up talking to your mom. No one – no one – will ever see or remember The Butler or 2 Fast 2 Furious the way you do. For a mass medium, the realization can be easy to miss, and Uppal underlines it by projecting the movies we think we know on the distorted screen of her odd, sad, maddening experience.
Uppal’s carefully crafted memoir illustrates the way art and life mesh in our mental fabric. We all lend our own backdrops to the movies, whether we’re using them to escape ourselves or to illuminate a life lived fearlessly.
Sarah Barmak is a frequent contributor to Globe Books.